Breaking Bad 5.15 Review – Granite State
Rating: After last week’s monster of an episode, Ozymandias, Granite State had a lot to live up to. A number…
After last week’s monster of an episode, Ozymandias, Granite State had a lot to live up to. A number of people called Ozymandias the best episode of television they’d ever seen. It will forever stand in its own class in terms of raw emotional impact, but Granite State meets and exceeds any expectations Ozymandias left. In terms of composition, mood, acting, storytelling, and characterization, Granite State doesn’t fall an inch from the enormously high precedent set by Ozymandias. It may even be better.
In a way, the episode serves as an interlude between the shattering of the Breaking Bad universe last week and the conclusion of the series next week. It sees most of the characters picking up whatever pieces they can and moving on in whatever way they can while slowly rehabilitating the utterly defeated Walter White’s resolve.
But don’t let that fool you – there’s a lot going on in Granite State. Its extra length is more than merited by the amount of action. Before the opening credits are even done rolling, there’s enough to guarantee your full attention.
Acting veteran Robert Forster’s introduction as Saul’s vanisher, Ed, partially fills the void left by Dean Norris’s departure. I’m surprised to see such a mysterious character featured so prominently, but Forster eases into the role effortlessly. His dry wit and no-nonsense directness are firmly established in the opening teaser with Saul. The character is not unlike Forster’s in Jackie Brown. He has the perfect composure for the role of “criminal’s associate.” He is unafraid of Walt and totally in control of their relationship.
Walt is pitiful through most of the episode. Even Saul gets the better of him in Ed’s bunker – Walt can’t even choke out a threat to the weaselly lawyer before collapsing in a coughing spell. When he’s relocated to a remote cabin in New Hampshire, he quickly succumbs to cabin fever. The first time he ventures to his gate, he chickens out before leaving. Bryan Cranston’s frightened, defeated delivery of the line, “Tomorrow,” is a fine example of his ability to say something in just the right way that lets you know he doesn’t mean it. Seeing Walt struggling with the torment of his isolation is satisfying; it’s the closest thing to a penance we’ve seen him serve. Ed shows up once a month to deliver supplies and Walt waits for him at the gate like a dog or a crazy person waiting expectantly on the porch to run out and greet the mailman. His happiness as Ed pulls in is pitiful. Being left totally alone with nothing but his sins and a barrel full of money for company has all but destroyed Heisenberg.
His weakness is played up all throughout the episode. So far has the mighty fallen that Walt can’t even put the chemo needle from the do-it-yourself kit in his own arm. He loses so much weight that his wedding band falls off in his sleep. In a symbol of his attempt to hold onto his family by whatever desperate threads he can, he ties it to a string to wear as a necklace. During their poker game Ed deals them both a king, further cementing Walt’s lack of supremacy.
While Walt – now officially Mr. Lambert – wastes away in his New Hampshire cabin, there is continuing fallout from his actions in Albuquerque. As expected, the neo-Nazis raid the Schrader home and take Jesse’s confession. They watch Jesse confessing to Gale’s murder and ratting out Todd, at which point Jack decides to kill him. When Todd intervenes on Jesse’s behalf, Jack deduces it’s because of Todd’s desire to impress Lydia with Jesse’s superior meth. The explicitly perverted sexual conversation that follows underscores the skeeviness of the neo-Nazis. With no sense of irony, Jack describes Lydia’s “coochie” as “a wood chipper” and then says, “Ah, what the hell. The heart wants what the heart wants.” Spoken like a true Hallmark card. Notably, when the DEA investigates the wreckage of the Schrader home there is a disc lying in the hallway. It may well be Walt and Skyler’s phony confession or an extra copy of Jesse’s, in which Jesse calls out Todd by first and last name for the murder of Drew Sharp.
Speaking of names, Jack’s right-hand-man is finally given one: Kenny. Jack and Todd are both given last names. Ed’s name isn’t mentioned in the episode, but is listed on IMDB. This lack of proper character introduction is frustrating, so I’m happy to now have something to call everyone in the show.
The scene at the White household has all the suspense and jumpiness of a slasher film. With DEA agents watching the front, that question of who’s watching the back can’t help but come into a viewer’s mind. It’s truly terrifying when Todd surprises Skyler to discuss Lydia. For several tense moments, there’s no way of knowing what’s going to happen. Nowhere in the show is Todd scarier than in this scene. Skyler’s altercation with Lydia way back in Blood Money comes full-circle here, with Lydia preferring to see Skyler dead but Todd’s respect for Walt keeping him from pulling the trigger. Here, crucially, Todd takes a half-measure with Skyler. He threatens her and then leaves her, which has historically been a big mistake in the Breaking Bad universe. However, without Walt’s support it doesn’t seem Skyler has the kind of fight in her that would let her stand up to the neo-Nazis. But if Walt ever catches wind of it, it could give him just the motivation he needs to kill Lydia, something viewers long suspected he might end up doing.
The bulk of the action that doesn’t belong to Walt belongs to Jesse and Todd. In stark contrast to Lydia’s meetings with Walt and Mike, Todd allows her to sit at a different table. As the scene follows Todd’s half-measure with Skyler, it seems as though Todd may be out of his element. He is far more submissive of Lydia’s nervous demands than Walt or Mike ever were. Lydia is still completely oblivious to his affections and advances. How Todd could love her is a real mystery, but he is letting her call the shots and she has a way of getting herself in trouble. Their back-to-back conversation certainly looks far more suspicious than her lunches with Walt or Mike. As Todd leans in closer and closer, Lydia can only disbelievingly repeat the figure of Todd’s meth purity: 92 percent.
The only real stumble the episode made is Jesse’s escape attempt. It’s well-done, but the fact that it doesn’t work is an enormous letdown given the buildup. The way the neo-Nazis emerge from out of nowhere in the middle of the night is also a little unbelievable. Jesse runs past a camera and seconds later, six of them are there. They are somewhat inconsistently portrayed in the show; here, they are ruthlessly alert super villains and in Buried they dispatched all of Declan’s men with minimal effort, but in To’hajiilee they couldn’t land a fatal shot on a wide-open man with a small army’s arsenal from only a few feet away. Still, I can appreciate that for its service to the story. A character like Hank deserved last words, so Kenny’s lousy aim is forgivable.
Either way, Jesse’s escape attempt is a big mistake. To punish him the neo-Nazis murder Andrea right before his eyes. Her death is, in many ways, the cruelest of the series. She is the most innocent main character yet to receive a bullet. Gale, while peaceful and harmless, manufactured crystal meth and Hank, while on the right side of the law, revealed numerous grey areas throughout the series, especially toward the end. Andrea is a devoted single mother who never hurt anyone. Jesse’s tortured reaction is a brilliant bit of acting. Not only does he squirm and scream and lash his own soul repeatedly, he looks as though the neo-Nazis roughed him up a bit more before driving him to Andrea’s. Brock isn’t in the episode but he is kept alive as the last bargaining chip to get Jesse to cook. I suspect that Andrea’s murder is a big sign that the neo-Nazis will get their comeuppance. At this point there is no punishment too severe for Todd and his gang. For my satisfaction, the vengeance meted out to the neo-Nazis will have to be medieval.
Yet it’s another heinous crime for which Walt is at least partially, if not ultimately, responsible. In a way, so is Hank. By hiding the fact that Walt visited Andrea from Jesse, he diminished Jesse’s ability to protect her. Hank couldn’t have predicted her death by neo-Nazi, but there is plenty of blame to go around. It’s interesting how the show plays out in such a way that any small decision has lasting impact. If Hank had told Jesse about Walt’s visit to Andrea, Jesse would certainly have taken steps to protect her. There are countless instances where a seemingly innocuous decision, had it been made another way, would have changed the show’s entire direction. It’s a key to the show’s freshness and unpredictability that every decision has consequences. Breaking Bad could be split into an infinity of universes just by switching every “yes” to a “no” and vice-versa.
The flash-forward everyone has been waiting for is very deftly handled, with no clue other than Walt’s beard to let us know how much time has passed. Ed’s rundown of the news in Albuquerque is a smooth and seamless way of bringing the viewer up-to-date without filming any rote, day-by-day scenes. Despite there being only a commercial break to separate months of in-show continuity, you don’t feel out of the loop or left behind. I’d have liked to see more media clippings about the Heisenberg case, but the ending goes a long way toward making up for that deficiency.
It’s a great surprise to see Walt on the other end of the line when Junior is pulled out of class to take a call from who he thinks is Marie. A voice like Junior’s is more important in the show now than ever. Unlike just about everybody else, the viewer included, his morality is untouched by Heisenberg. He’s also about the only person left who can get to Walt. When Walt tries talking Junior into being a mule for his drug money, Junior becomes upset, tells him to just die already, and hangs up on him. It’s an extremely emotional phone call that cements a hard reality in Walt: everything he’s done truly has been for nothing. He seemingly gives himself up immediately after, calling the police and waiting at the bar for them to come get him.
The ending, then, is a remarkable turnaround. I hope I’m not speaking too much in the heat of the moment, but it is possibly my favorite episode ending. It manages to be perfectly redemptive even as it resurrects a villain. Walt says nothing but the expressions on his face are more than enough. The extended version of the show’s opening theme sets a tone I can’t describe in words. Never before has music been used so effectively on Breaking Bad. It’s satisfying to the scenery and a great bit of fan service. That minimalist, dark, ambient tune sets up the most kinetic and ambiguous cliffhanger in the show.
On the bar’s TV Walt sees his former associates, the millionaire owners of Grey Matter, Gretchen and Elliott Schwartz, discussing him on Charlie Rose. While the miraculous news story timing is a cliché, Breaking Bad delivers the goods with it. Rose’s cameo is excellent, driving home the national prominence of the Heisenberg story. As Gretchen and Elliott disparage Walt and minimize his contributions to their billion-dollar company, Heisenberg seems to perk up inside Walt. When Gretchen says, “Whatever he became – the sweet, kind, brilliant man that we once knew long ago – he’s gone,” a new look of resolve overcomes Walt’s face. The man Gretchen is describing, in Walt’s view, either never existed or never should have. His ego, the greatest source of the show’s danger, is rekindled. Walt finally sees himself the way the rest of the world sees him. With even his own son firmly in the anti-Walt camp, he seems to think, “If the world wants a monster, I will give them a monster.”
Walt’s immediate anger is obviously at Gretchen and Elliott, but perhaps more importantly he learns from the interview that his trademark blue meth is back on the streets. The neo-Nazis, with Jesse’s help, are tinkering with Walt’s only true legacy, the Heisenberg brand. Whether he arrives in Albuquerque as a redemptive antihero to take out Jack and his gang or as a full-blown villain to exact vengeance on the business partners who screwed him is left beautifully ambiguous as Granite State closes on the shot of Walt’s nearly untouched glass.
We know Walt wants Jack dead now more than ever, but he can’t take out his gang singlehandedly. Saul is likely gone for good. Marie is still a contender with her expressed desire to poison Walt. My personal wish is still to see Jesse devise a bomb or a poison to free himself from under Todd’s nose – remember that Jack refuses to wear a mask in the lab, a fact Jesse could take advantage of. I also have every expectation that Todd’s half-measure against Skyler is going to prove disastrous for him and possibly for Lydia, too. And with the police alerted to Walt’s presence in New Hampshire, it may provide the perfect cover for Walt’s return to Albuquerque. Gretchen and Elliott could prove the perfect channel for getting Walt’s money to his family, either by threat of violence or some kind of deception.
It’s exciting to know that next week’s episode will run long; there is still so much to tie up and figure out that the remaining story could last an entire season. I’m glad Breaking Bad is going out at the top of its game instead of succumbing to mediocrity in a 9th or 10th season, but right now it’s still so good it feels painful to lose it. In addition to serving as an anagram for “finale,” next week’s concluding episode, Felina, can be parsed into three elements of the periodic table that mean something very specific in the Breaking Bad universe: blood, meth, and tears. Expect plenty of all three when the best show on TV concludes next week.